The Hollowing Out of the American South

The South is irreparably racially fractured. Education is a mechanism used to actively prevent integration (and therefore social mobility). Everything is fucked; there will be no winners. None of that should be new or news to anyone.

Do I have your attention?

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I spent the second half of October on a solo road trip through the American South, with stops in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have seen (some) shit. I’m piecing together my notes and experiences, and working to make sense of what I saw. Shout out to the homie Kevin Beck, who was kind enough to meet me for a couple of beers as soon as I landed in San Diego so I could start talking through everything.

Disclaimer: I’m very aware that this isn’t a robust analysis or set of conclusions in the grand scheme of things. Of course it isn’t. Two weeks - let alone two days each in a bunch of places - isn’t remotely enough time to draw conclusions with any real certainty. Even two years would be light. I didn’t tend to collect names of the people I met, and I took notes as I could. Sometimes it’d be at the end of the day; sometimes I’d pull over in my car shortly after something occurred. So there’s that. This was an informed vacation, not a rigorous research endeavor. But I’m still going to have to try to make sense of what I ran into. I went on this road trip not entirely sure what I was interested in or what I would find; I loosely wanted to see what race relations look like across spaces and places in the South, and to get an on-the-ground perspective on rural poverty and community.

To cut to the chase, I’d like to outline my general premise, and discuss three main points (under provocative bullet point titles) that comprise my basic argument. In short, I argue that what I found was a persistent hollowing out of the South: from people in small towns, cities, and public spaces, and even a cultural institution in the blues. Urbanists Saskia Sassen and Richard Florida have argued for the hollowing out of non-elite cities for a while now. I’m going to gloss over any real nuance in either of their arguments for brevity’s sake: the general idea is that entire geographic sections of the U.S., due to opportunity-based migration, are losing skilled talent to major coastal cities like New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, LA, etc. There’s a continuing concentration of advantage in the most elite of global cities. Through that lens, I argue that I got a glimpse of that trend from the some of the smallest rural towns up to the South’s premier cities. This is far from complete, and it’s quite possible that you won’t be all that convinced by what I have to say. Whatever. Go see for yourself.
 

The South is (I really, really hope not) irreparably racially fractured

This isn’t a particularly bold claim. I’m not the first to say it by any stretch of the imagination. I’m in agreement on this point with Chris Arnade, who reached a similar (if not the same) conclusion based on his own experiences of the last few years. Integration is a myth.

I’ll start by outlining my experience in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I picked Philadelphia as a stop on this trip for two reasons: 1. it’s generally recognized as one of the "better off" towns in Mississippi, and 2. It was the site of the 1964 “Freedom Summer” murders, in which James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the KKK and local law enforcement, who refused to cooperate with a federal investigation. It wasn’t until 2005 that one individual (of the 18 charged with crimes back in 1967) involved in the killings was convicted of manslaughter, largely as a matter of closure for the victims’ families.

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So I wanted to explore this a bit: how does the town navigate this horrendous piece of history and still move forward? To put it simply, what I found is that the town moves forward by not navigating this horrendous piece of history. Back in my more rigorous research days, I’ve been stonewalled before by people who didn’t want to talk. Not new to me. But in Philadelphia, I was unequivocally shut down by nearly anyone I spoke with; folks were not interested in bringing up the past, whether I asked about it innocuously or pointedly. I won’t dwell on this point. I was told to stop asking questions, that I was a Bad Apple, that I was stirring up trouble. These were white people of varying ages (senior, by and large) who I met in public. Black people were also uninterested in talking to me; I was advised to stay out of neighborhoods where I didn’t know anyone. In short, this was not a town in which I or my questions were welcome. Understandable, in the grand scheme - and two days - of things.

The deeper into the trip I got, the more things started to slot together and make sense relationally. In my drive between Birmingham to Philadelphia, I stopped in Selma, Alabama. It, too, is of monumental historical importance to the Civil Rights Movement, and I wanted to see the town. Chalk it up to me not fully doing my homework, I suppose, but I was caught off guard by the economic and physical state in which I found Selma. Selma is in a sad state of affairs. Shuttered (but beautiful) downtown storefronts abound, and its residential neighborhoods have seen better days. After the fact, I learned a bit more about the town. I’ll paint in broad brush strokes: In the '90s, the black populace sought a bit of retribution for the shit that went down in Selma. Then in 2000, Selma elected its first black mayor. Call it optics, call it narrative, call it trajectory, but white folks got spooked. Between 2002-2003, Selma’s white population moved a few miles down the road and incorporated the town Valley Grande. It exists today. You can visit it. In moving, the white population pulled their businesses out of Selma, decimating the town’s economic core. And the incorporation of their new town meant that their property taxes funneled into their own town’s school system rather than that of Selma, leaving Selma’s schools nearly entirely segregated (more on that in a bit) and entirely underfunded.

Selma is a town that sought healing, and had the (white) rug pulled out from under it. Philadelphia exists, perhaps tenuously, in that folks don’t speak about the past. While in Memphis, I talked to Jacqueline Smith, who’s been protesting at the site of the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum for nearly 30 years. I brought my experiences in Philadelphia and Selma up to her, and she was very blunt, very clear, and I think very correct in her summation.

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As Smith explained, for people in Philadelphia (looking at black people, but really everyone), there’s arguably less to be gained by seeking retribution for the past than moving forward and leaving gaping wounds open. Selma sought healing, and it is a shell of itself. Philadelphia exists because people are disinclined - and economically/existentially disincentivized - to talk about the past. To say that it exists as any sort of integrated town would be a sham. It’s still starkly racially divided; there are deep, clear racial differences between the (relative) haves and have-nots in this town. Philadelphia exists, and it is "better off," relatively speaking, in that it does, in fact, exist. But it’s still divided, figuratively and literally, by the right and wrong sides of the tracks.

I’m not arguing that there are overt, poignant racial tensions to which people would speak in Philadelphia - I’m arguing the exact opposite, really. I believe that Philadelphia is a town in which you'll find that, more often than not, folks will tell you or me that race isn’t an issue there. And that’s true, in the sense that it’s not spoken about. It isn’t confronted, and that's why the town can exist as it does. Were the black population of the town to make it an issue, to force the issue and have real dialogue, would Philadelphia continue to exist? I’m not sure, but I’d bet no. Selma isn’t an isolated case or an anomaly. White folks deliberately leave. These are towns in which black people are systemically and historically severely disadvantaged, and they quite simply don’t have the voice or leverage of power to seek closure for the past without risking that those with economic power and capabilities to punish them (white folks) will simply opt out of the town’s existence. It’s normalized; it’s happened. And that’s that.

A final wrinkle here: my intention is not to portray Philadelphia as an absolute cesspool. It's undeniably better off than it was in the 1960s. The town's mayor would be quick to point that out. My point is that it's a town that, in its current state, cannot push further than it has to reconcile its horrific past without risking ripping the town apart. It is irreparably racially fractured.

 

Education is a mechanism by which to prevent integration (and social mobility)

After Philadelphia, I visited Cleveland, Mississippi. It made it on my radar after popping up in the national news last year when a federal court ordered that the town finally integrate its public schools. This town isn’t abnormal: lots of places have de facto segregated school systems. As of 2015, there were 179 U.S. school districts actively involved in desegregation cases. 44 of them were in Mississippi. Birmingham’s school system is gerrymandered to be racially segregated. This isn’t new.

Schools aren’t integrated. Period. That might be a shocking statement if there were normalized, concerted efforts like, say, busing programs designed to integrate schools in order to thwart this phenomenon (looking at you, Louisville). Fun fact: the exact opposite occurs. Drive through the rural deep south. You’ll undoubtedly encounter small road signs pointing to ‘Academies’ down left and right hand turns. Each academy is, in essence and intent, a white private school.  

This isn’t new or unknown. Do a Google search for “deep south academies” or the like; you’ll find myriad pieces written on this exact matter, dating from the ‘70s up until last year. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

White parents place their kids in these private schools, which have lower academic standards than Mississippi public school standards. While I have not yet verified this, I was told by a knowledgeable source in Cleveland whom I trust, and whom has no choice but to recruit interns from the nearest academy. The school from which he recruits interns, in particular, doesn’t teach lab science. That’s a pain in the ass for him, as he recruits high school interns to work...in his lab. I don’t know if that’s the norm, or if it varies from academy to academy, but that’s not ideal.

But, frankly speaking, it’s not about education. It’s about white parents not wanting their white kids to go to integrated schools. Cleveland doesn’t have an academy. But the next county does. And this academy sends a bus to the county line, and there are parents in Cleveland who drive their kids to meet the bus so that they can go to this academy rather than to go to an integrated public school. They’ve avoided integration by opting out. The best that I could get out of anyone in Cleveland was that those students who have gone to the integrating (it's in process) schools haven’t reported any incidents, and that it’s “been fine.” I didn’t find that particularly reassuring.

"Fine,” though, might be as good as it gets. The alternative could be a situation like Selma and others like it, where white people simply leave. There’s opting out of schools, and there’s opting out of towns and social existence entirely. Having access to a segregation academy could (this is just conjecture, but deal with it) be what’s keeping towns like Philadelphia and Cleveland from breaking completely apart, leaving their black populations mostly fucked instead of completely and utterly fucked.

So you’ve got white parents pulling their kids out of public schools, ensuring that both private and public schools remain segregated. You have a population of black students from severely disadvantaged backgrounds going to disadvantaged schools in towns where those with power seek to avoid them. The outlook is bleak for both students and for these towns. For black youth who do find themselves with the opportunity to get some form of higher education or skill development, what’s the game plan? Do you leave and move on, or do you return to try to make something happen in a town that doesn’t want you? Would you stay in a town that hates you? People leave, and these towns continue to shed their populations. Can you blame them?

 

Everything is fucked; there will be no winners

This goes beyond racial retribution and education. After Cleveland, I went to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Let me start by saying that Clarksdale is an absolute Blues Disneyland (with abject poverty). Clarksdale is famous as the (disputed) site of the infamous Crossroads, the intersection at which Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn to play the guitar all blues-like. If your blues knowledge is more whitewashed, it’s the spot that Eric Clapton references on Crossroads.

Once you get past the town’s deep, stark racialized poverty, Clarksdale is great. It’s blues all the time. I was awake for ~16 hours on a Sunday there, and 9.5 of those were spent watching music, with sets that included Grammy winners casually sitting in and jamming. But let’s step back. Point 1: Clarksdale certainly isn’t only blues. The downtown area is blues-centric, but there are a lot of people who live there in deep poverty. Let’s not forget that. Point 2: Yeah, but Clarksdale also kinda is only the blues. It’s propped up by blues tourism: the town would have otherwise completely collapsed long ago.

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At this point in my experience, I wasn’t all that surprised to find that in a given blues bar (Red’s, one of the last remaining juke joints, for example) the performers and employees were black, and nearly every single patron while I was there was white. So it goes. An additional wrinkle: about half were western European tourists at any given point in the night - I picked up British accents, and German and French being spoken the most in the crowd. It’s not unknown that the blues is beloved internationally. Clarksdale’s newest prodigy, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, just turned 18 and is already touring internationally. Blues mainstays regularly tour internationally to reach their most ardent fans. Without international blues fans, there wouldn’t really be a viable existence as a professional blues musician in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Okay, but holy shit. Take a step back. In the Delta’s Blues Mecca, there are blues artists and musicians scrounging by thanks to a market propped up by vacationing European tourists on Delta pilgrimages. Perhaps this isn’t as revelatory as I’ve found it, but it's got my mind in a pretzel. I asked an employee at the town’s Rock & Blues Museum about this, pretty bluntly: “ I went to Red’s last night, and it was packed. And I couldn’t help but notice that it was packed with white people. Is that typical? Has that always been the case?” Answer: yes, and no. It’s shifted, I learned, in the last 15-20 years. Downtown Clarksdale used to be called the New World - an opportunity for black performers to get discovered, and for black patrons to envelop themselves in a local cultural product. Today, it’s different. The argument (as I expected) for black youth is that, generally speaking, rap and hip-hop have greater gravitational pull than the blues. That feels a bit tropey and that there’s more to unpack there, but fine. For Clarksdale’s older black population, (this is from said in-the-know employee’s perspective, but take it with an N=1 grain of salt) the blues is a reminder of deeply negative experiences past: backbreaking labor, youth blighted by poverty, and whatever else comes with being a poor black individual in the very rural deep South. I can understand why you’d change the station.

So you’ve got a hollowing out of towns insofar as white folks straight up leaving, you’ve got a hollowing out of towns where racial cohesion is nominal at best, and you’ve got a hollowing out of a particular cultural moment and product that’s deeply Southern and Black - the blues - eroding to the point that it’s propped up as an artifact by international tourism.

Another fucked up thing ( it might just reflect on my attempts as a casual researcher on this trip): You know what’s hard? Finding black people in public spaces in rural Mississippi. In each town I went, the downtown was nearly universally white. Maybe it was the time of day (although I went multiple times a day), maybe it was an anomaly. Couldn’t tell you. That’s where conjecture comes in, so bear with me. In these towns, poverty rates are high. We’re talking 30-50%+. For black people, usually higher. Guess where you aren’t if you’re very poor? You aren’t in primary public spaces spending money. You’re in a residence, whether it’s your own, your friends’, or that of family. Or church. Or Dollar General.  It’s established that public spaces are inherently gendered and racialized. The rural public spaces that I experienced are undoubtedly racialized, and I found that the more presumably communal and collectively accessible a space should conceivably be, the whiter it actually is. So you’ve got hollowed publics, as well, in these tiny towns. Great.

And then there are cities. I visited Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville. I won't really spend much time talking about these cities, as they've been written about pretty extensively before. Birmingham is a tired, dying industrial city that’s doing its damnedest not to die. Industry is exhaling its death rattle, and the city and its populace are looking to find a new identity. Memphis is a town that I’m not sure knows that it’s going to die, but spoiler alert: I think it’s going to die. Scope it out for yourself and reach your own conclusions.

So there’s also a hollowing out of industrial cities along the Mississippi River and in the Rust Belt. That’s known. Richard Florida’s argument about the concentration of skills (and creativity) in top tier cities comes into play here. I’ll use baseball as an analogy to explain it a bit further. Picture the Yankees and Dodgers. They have huge payrolls and purchasing power in a sport where there’s no ceiling on salaries. They can buy their way to winning, and winning on the biggest stage attracts additional winners. New York and LA (the cities) are no different, with a concentration of high tech, high skill-demanding companies that command top dollar and prestige. Other cities, like, say, Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis, (or Kansas City, and Tampa, to keep up the basebell analogy) can, and do, develop bright talents and vibrant economic engines. But, as the idea goes, increasingly big stages, brighter lights, bigger opportunities, and higher salaries attract top talent to keep climbing the ladder to more “important” global cities like New York and Los Angeles, where championships are won. These ‘lower tier’ cities end up serving as farm teams for the country's premier cities. Talent in the South’s smallest towns migrate to the next opportunity, and this trend, in the aggregate, continues up the food chain. I write this as the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series - watch what happens in the next few years to that team’s top talent.

In short: I believe I caught glimpses of social, economic, spatial, and cultural hollowing of the American south.

 

What’s next?

I don’t know. You know what really has me fucked up as a matter of stones left unturned? This could be some conspiracy theory bullshit, but it stuck with me. I met a guy in Birmingham with whom I talked about my trip. I explained the towns in Mississippi I was planning to visit, and why I picked them. And he chided me a bit: that I should be careful in picking my destinations based on the decidedly negative stories that reached national coverage - those are towns whose secrets got out, who lost control of their narratives. What might be more compelling (for the right person with the right intentions, which was not I on this trip) is to visit towns that I hadn’t heard of. To dig through public records and microfilm, and to seek out their secrets that never quite made it to the light of day. If you, dear reader, feel so inclined, there’s the premise of your next trip. A jump start: I went to Cleveland, Mississippi. Have you heard of Cleveland, Alabama? I had not. But this guy I met in Birmingham who was from there assured me that the town has a closet full of skeletons, but no more so than any other town. Was he full of shit? No idea. I haven’t been to Cleveland, Alabama. You should check it out, though.

Let's pause for a caveat so I look a little less bleeding heart: the important thing to remember is that places change. Towns, cities, and neighborhoods are dynamic. Things change. The same goes for the blues: it was born in the dynamics of a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. Maybe it’s time for it to die? Who am I to say?

But back to the point. What’s next? Clearly, there are no easy answers. Maybe no good answers. But I’ll give you my take on some root issues. What I saw in a mere two weeks is, of course, connected systematically and structurally to global economics. You can’t understand the microsphere without framing it within macro systems.

On one hand: there’s an obvious need to tear asunder the actions, mechanisms, and structures by which persistent poverty and unequal opportunity exist in the South, America, and globally. The resource and ability side of things. I won’t dwell here; I can’t scratch the surface on this in a few paragraphs. There are myriad entry points and possibilities from this angle.

On the other hand (the hand in which I’m most acutely interested, as someone with a cultural sociological perspective on account planning) there’s a clear opportunity to foster a social imaginary based on shared fates. For lasting economic and social change to be put in place that produces meaningfully positive outcomes, there needs to be a collective desire and sense of collective benefit from which support for these initiatives can stem.  ‘We’re in this together,’ roughly speaking. But one of the things that does not exist across social strata is a sense of collective skin in the game. Shocker, I know. It requires a fundamental shift in understanding of American life and collective existence, to be sure. The social over the self, collective use over individualized exchange, cooperation over competition, etc. This issue resides not in the South, but in the American psyche. It’s an approach to action and life.

Social and civic initiatives, in any real lasting form cannot 'stick' without a sense of collective benefit, for the good of the whole (that either symbolically or tangibly is understood to also be good for the individual). As an example, we happen to see this in one particular piece of policy: social security, for one, is largely beloved across the population, in large part because all folks pay into it, and most folks get something out of it. There’s a very acute sense of skin in the game, and benefit in the end. Individual benefit. I would say that it’s a tellingly successful manifestation, over time, of a more deeply rooted opportunity. People like to get stuff. We see this at the core of arguments around healthcare policy, social welfare, and other programs categorizable as entitlements: there are indisputably those who are perceived (and perceive themselves) be in the group who benefit and those who do not, the deserving and undeserving. I am focused on this principle of vision and division.

I think that there’s a bigger opportunity to develop a sense of collective benefit that cuts across existing experiences, from which social and civic improvement programs might arise and/or find staying power. Donna Haraway spoke of building on the local to create “an earthwide network of connections, including the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different—and power differentiated—communities.” Is there something there? What does this look like? Mutual objectives, mutual risk - we all have something very real at stake - and the platform by which to approach constructive resolution to past and ongoing conflicts. For other potentially meaningful change to come about - through policy initiatives at local or federal levels, for concerted community planning and civic innovation - there must be a socially and culturally rooted interest in enacting it. Writing that feels incredibly wide-eyed, but there’s real work to be done.

The core of Chris Arnade’s (and, to a large degree, my) bleak outlook on what can be done is that the underclass and near-underclass have extraordinarily different life experiences and orientations to the world than the policy-setting elite. There’s a stark need for a collective sense of existence, and how the poorest of the poor up to the pretty well off are actually tied together in the end. To ignore that comes at the detriment of all. This isn’t clear cut, of course. I don’t anticipate that the wealthiest will ever buy in. Fine. But there’s something to the notion of developing collective skin in the game and a sense of shared fates that cut across strata and enable & empower new possibilities.

Where to start? The pragmatist in me says to simply start where you’re best equipped to start. I won’t be the guy that’s on the ground collecting signatures for policy initiatives. That's not where my experiences, skill set, and trajectory are best served. The answer isn’t top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top. It might just start where your skill set, experiences, and trajectory fit best.

So I’m going back to the South.  And I think I have to stay. It’s as simple as that.  I knew that it was a very real possibility on this trip. More to come.

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